I recently attended a panel titled “Museums From Empire to Commonwealth: Repatriation, Restitution, and Reconciliation” put on my the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Commonwealth Association of Museums. The panelists included Dr. Mark Elliott (curator at MAA), Dr. Anita Herle (curator at MAA), Catherine Cole (Secretary-General of CAM), and Dr. Abidemi Babalola (Smuts Fellow, Centre for African Studies). Dr. Elliott and Dr. Herle being my supervisors for my Master’s degree and repatriation being a specific interest of mine, I was excited to attend the panel and find out where repatriation is right now in the field.
I expected the panel to have a small audience, but over thirty people showed up to listen to the panel discussions for two hours, including many engaging and thought-provoking audience questions at the end. One of the main takeaways, for me, was that repatriation is a complex issue that deserves the attention it has garnered in the press recently but also the respect of the nuances of museum artifacts and their biographies.
Decolonization has become a hot buzzword in media, academia, and activism recently. It has become a movement in almost every discipline (I know from the multitude of Cambridge University departments hosting Decolonize XYZ events). The panel discussed decolonization as a methodology rather than an ideology, with repatriation as one of the many ways to decolonize museums.
So what does repatriation mean? And what are the challenges associated?
One of the interesting points brought forward by the panel was the difference in definitions and connotations of “repatriation”, “reconciliation”, and “restitution”, and what we should be working towards. I found the idea of reconciliation in congruence with repatriation to be the most interesting because it hopes for not only a restoration of an object to its source community, but also an ongoing relationship after the repatriation is complete. An ongoing relationship can allow for the wounds of the past to heal and for more knowledge to be shared between groups, which can lead to better understanding of other objects museums hold. Without the ongoing relationship, the knowledge sharing and cross-cultural interactions cease to exist, which benefits no one. Repatriation is important, but it cannot consist solely of “giving back colonialism”, as one panelist put it.
I am also fascinated by the idea that museum artifacts can only be repatriated to other museums or cultural centers. There is no legal policy denoting this, but it has been the trend for repatriation claims. The argument being that the source communities don’t have the capacity to take care of their stuff and therefore it should not be repatriated. This is a pretty neocolonialist argument, another way for the western world to control access and ownership. Who decides what happens to an artifact once it is repatriated? New museums and heritage centers are being built all over the world to accept repatriated objects because of this argument when that money could be spent in the community or for a better purpose. This is especially true with Native American artifacts, specifically grave goods or human remains. Thankfully, there is legislation in the U.S. that demands the repatriation of grave goods and human remains without stipulation as what is to be done with them upon return. Most of these objects are buried/reburied because that is how it should be in the Native American cultures. However, there are many professionals (museum, science, etc.) that think the artifacts are too valuable to society to be buried- like with the Kennewick Man. But who decides an object’s value? And why should society, domestic or global, be entitled to the viewing and understanding of an object that is not their’s and that the owners do not want shared? The respect for the object and for the source community needs to be there. If not, it’s just a new form of colonialism.
On the other hand, what about objects that aren’t wanted back? Or an object’s source community no longer exists? What becomes of these artifacts if they were looted but cannot be repatriated? What does this mean for the object’s agency and biography? What about governments that don’t recognize the source community as legitimate? There are so many nuanced questions and complex answers in the repatriation conversation, but they are all necessary. Some questions don’t have answers yet, but that doesn’t mean we stop looking for solutions.
Increasingly, museums are becoming political agents and places for social inclusion. They are expected to have a social impact. Repatriation and decolonization are very large umbrellas under which many projects lay. I’ve outlined, briefly, only a few of the challenges facing museum professionals today. The question is, what can we do in the face of these challenges?